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Spellings: Future of ‘Silent Sam’ presents ‘interesting challenges’

October 2, 2018

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill officials have about six weeks to devise a plan for the future of a controversial Confederate monument on campus, and UNC President Margaret Spellings said Monday that she doesn’t want to step into the middle of that process.

The UNC Board of Governors gave Chapel Hill’s trustees and administrators until Nov. 15 to figure out what to do with the “Silent Sam” statue, which was pulled off its pedestal during an Aug. 20 protest.

“This is not a time for us as policy leaders and honest brokers to proffer our personal opinions,” Spellings said when asked what she thought should be done with the statue. “It’s a time for us to listen and learn and consider the consequences for any of the options.”

She acknowledged Silent Sam has been “a flashpoint” between groups that see it as a racist symbol and those who say it’s a monument to people who died fighting for their communities.

“People have a high degree of emotions on both sides, and that’s why we really need to consider what should happen next – what are the costs in terms of safety, in terms of dollars and cents, in terms of the culture that is welcoming and productive for all students,” she said. “All of those things need to be considered in the way forward as we work on the future and the disposition of the statue.”

UNC leaders have been criticized for not being more proactive about Silent Sam before it was toppled. But Spellings noted that she and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt foresaw potential trouble after last year’s violent clash over Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Va. The pair expressed their concerns to Gov. Roy Cooper, but their hands were tied by a state law restricting the movement of such monuments.

“We alerted him and our state leaders that this is serious business,” Spellings said. “We have interesting challenges around this – the Historical Commission is charged with determining what should happen with historical monuments like this, obviously the legislature, the Board of Governors, trustees. Figuring out where the buck really starts also is part of this.”

The Orange County Human Relations Commission hosted a community conversation Monday night called “Hate, Heritage and Hope: Orange County Voices on Silent Sam.” Included in that forum was Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, who has seen his department criticized for how it handled the protests.

Blue said he is concerned, and even saddened, by the fact that law enforcement is now in the middle of the very contentious conversation about Silent Sam.

“I think that we all expected that, at some point, an effort would be made to take the statue down and we certainly had concerns about when that happened,” Blue said.

Specifically, Blue said he is aware of the criticism and questions aimed at both Chapel Hill and UNC campus police concerning the toppling of the statue and subsequent protests. One of the biggest questions he gets is about which agency had jurisdiction over the events.

“The simplest way to put it is, had it been on Franklin Street, it’s under Chapel Hill police command. If it had been on Main Street in Carrboro, it’s under Carrboro and on campus, it’s under UNC’s command,” he said.

Just days after the statue was toppled, multiple law enforcement agencies worked in tandem during a protest as part of a mutual aid agreement. Pepper spray was deployed and Blue said the police tactics, volume of officers and tension between protesters witnessed that night had not been seen for some time in the community and was concerning.

“It’s clear that some tactics have been employed that are unique for this community and they have not been seen before in this community and that causes me great concern,” he said.

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